Archive for the 'D’oh Squared' Category

How Not to Be A Photographer


K-man got me a new toy for Christmas.  This is a Nikon J1. It is, apparently, an old model. The only thing I care about is that it was half price, down from eye-wateringly expensive to heart-racingly expensive, which means I could legitimately put it on my gift list. And make no mistake, it is a hell of a gift. I’ll be on best behaviour for a while.

Obviously a camera like this instantly transforms you into a professional-quality photographer who can take well-composed photographs with just the right exposure. I’m half-way through the manual, but hey! Who needs instructions, right?



This is what happened when I took the camera off the Do Everything For Me setting.  Really.

I availed myself of the instruction manual, the power of the internet, and several hours.  After a time, I was able to achieve a focused background and a blurred foreground.  And then, something clicked.  No, they’re not perfect, but there is progress:


It’s still slightly blurred in the foreground.  The rest of that blurring was intentional.  Seriously! Confusingly, the camera kit I got came with two lenses. I’m still learning their relative limitations. Also, I’d had wine, thought ‘art is great!‘  and it was late.  I imagined I was the Shakespeare of the photography world and for a brief moment, when I viewed this image on the camera’s LCD screen, my dream became reality. Once uploaded and viewed closer to full size on the Mac’s display, truth kicked beauty’s butt.


You can’t tell this from my advanced ability in selecting portrait backgrounds, but I am playing with the aperture size.  This background is blurred, I tell you.  Alfie looks furious; the power of his anger has evidently created an odd halo of light around him.  It couldn’t be anything I did.

The weather has been especially shitty lately, and today was no exception. But it was dry. I toddled out to the garden to see if I could use the many fast-moving creatures who live there to test my shutter-speed selection strategy.

The answer, folks, was not really.  In England, of course, daylight doesn’t always mean daylight.  Sometimes it means the sky looks like wet newspaper.  Since photography is all about light, woman, that means a fast shutter-speed doesn’t let enough light in. Aperture adjustments just weren’t cutting it. Or at least that’s what I think the problem was. I took about one hundred photographs, and what you see below is the best of the best, after they’ve been through image manipulation software.


This is an artichoke leaf at the back of the garden, in the shitty patch. See how the background is all blurred?  That, for me, is a major achievement.  I was taking this close-up with the telephoto lens, because I was too lazy to go back inside the house and get the smaller lens with other numbers written on it.


One of the evil sunflower-head-eating forces at work in our garden.  Here he is, in his domain high in the tree-tops. Normally he is leaping between the trees or stealing food from someone.  Just when I actually wanted him to be moving about so I could test the shutter-speed settings, he was stock still.



This is my favourite.  Quite obliging when it came to sitting for telephoto portraits, but still wouldn’t move so I could test my shutter-speed ideas.

I can see it is going to take some time for me to get the hang of this.  I must squash my lazy attitude, pony up the hours of manual-reading required, and spend serious time experimenting.

You know what really blows my mind about this?

This is the best I could manage after hours with a really good camera, plus computer aided image manipulation. The camera does 95% of the work for me. I set either shutter-speed or aperture size (I am scared of the fully manual setting at the moment), and it does the rest. I don’t have to worry about putting the wrong type of film in the camera, and I can fix small screw-ups using my computer.  I have to remember about four things. Next time, I will think about light metering and exposure compensation and other parts of the manual I haven’t read yet.

But actual real photographers (people like my friend Lane, who has inspired my new hobby to no small extent), they create images far far far better on their worst days than I could ever dream of on my best day.  And they do it with film cameras.  I find that simply mind-boggling for the sheer quantity of talent and dedication and outright skill it requires.


Scrape Your Way to Mental Health

My melancholic state might consume me unless I do something about it.  I can’t talk about it because I’m British, and a problem shared is a frightfully unwelcome imposition upon the good nature of others that also runs the risk of spreading a contemporary bubonic plague of despair.  I’ve tried a variety of ill-advised notional self-help strategies, and I can say with certainty that for those with a fingernail-grip of optimism about this world’s ability to pull itself out of its chronically unjust status quo, reading Private Eye will only make you feel worse.

In the spirit of experimental mistreatment, I shall take out my frustrations on parts of my home.  My hypothesis is that by actively degenerating one’s surroundings, one can truly engage with the reality that no matter how bad you think it is, it could always be worse.  And through that realisation, a meaningful Kum-By-Yah internal dialogue will rise to the surface and merriment shall be enjoyed.

Shall we begin?

This is part of my bannister, which impairs the aesthetic of the landing outside the bedroom. Like so many elements of this abode, at some point in its past it was decorated by a blind idiot with questionable motor skills.  You’re looking at one coat of cheap gloss over some ancient chocolate brown paint.

Yesterday while peering through the neighbour’s window, I noted that they have the same bannister yet the whole top piece of theirs is stripped down and stained dark.  It looks much better than ours.  We could do that, I thought.  Where home improvements are concerned, that usually means I’ll leave it to K-man.  But with my new apparent need to constantly prove my self-worth around these parts, I thought I can do that.  Tomorrow, when K-man is at work.

DIY is something at which I wish I were better.  If I could Sarah Beeny my way through project after project, I would love myself for it.  Sadly, I am beset with astonishing impatience and high level of ask someone else to do it ability.  I should  have known that I was biting off more than I can chew, but I steamed ahead with ambition and aspiration as my only guides.

Clearly, it’s important that I look as though I know what I’m doing in case any neighbours peer through my window.  All tradesmen drink copious quantities of hot beverage in cheap cups and I’m not going to let my already-tarnished neighbourhood reputation stop me.

The plan was to remove as much of the paint as possible using the heat gun, and then revert to hideous chemical for the remainder.  The heat gun is a hairdryer that’s been abusing steroids for a decade, and it comes with its own collection of fear-inducing accoutrements.

There are no instructions.  No matter.  I plugged it in and pressed the On button, pointing it at the area I intended to strip.  It proved immediately difficult to restrict the heat to a particular area, even with the nozzle designed specifically for restricting the heat to a particular area.

The line of detail I intended to strip is indicated by the portion to the right, and the vast swathe of collateral damage can be seen to the left.  I began to feel queasy, but pressed down feelings of incompetence and carried on.

Thirty seconds later, I vigorously disconnected the smoke alarm battery and sought instructions from the all-knowing Google.

Once you get the hang of it, it’s not hard.  Well, it’s not hard on flat pieces of wood: there, stripping paint with a heat-gun and a scraper is the home decoration equivalent of picking off an enormous itchy scab.  I didn’t intend to strip anything below the top two inches of intricate wood, but if you ever do this watch out because it is the thin end of the slippery downward slope to full-scale 600 Centigrade scraping addiction.

On intricate little bits of edging, however, it is fucking impossible.   I may have gouged a little bit of wood your honour, and then decided it was time for the chemical.  The chemical is accompanied by literature treading a fine red line between engendering belief that the product is easy to use and will save time and sanity, and warnings of imminent doom should you fail to follow precisely the worryingly vague instructions.

Armed with safety goggles rendering me half-blind, rubber gloves, a metric ton of newspaper, and a sudden ability to hold my breath for a long time, I glooped some on and decided that for good measure I would also strip the varnish from the very top piece of wood.

It all looks quite innocuous so far, doesn’t it?  I left it on for a minute, but it started to dry out.  DO NOT ALLOW TO DRY OUT scream the instructions, but also LEAVE UNTIL THE PAINT BLISTERS.  My paint was not blistering, and I considered giving up and reading a book instead.  However, if there is something more likely to incur husbandly wrath than incompetently dried-on noxious chemical he has to remove to uncover full scale bannister destruction, I don’t know what that thing might be.  Remedial action was necessary, and quickly.  Shit.

The instructions say to remove stubborn crevice-paint with a toothbrush, and to wash off excess chemical with detergent in cold water.  I deployed both strategies simultaneously with a growing sense of emergency.  Steel wool, a toothbrush, and a cloth entered the fray, each simply serving to spread brown gelatinous mess ever further afield.  I stopped taking photos at this point because who takes photos at the scene of a chemical crime?

After scrubbing and rinsing and a period of advanced panic, this is what I’m left with:

The corner parts are the casualties of war, and there remains hideous brown paint residue running in horizontal lines along the crevices, but that’s a project for sandpaper K-man.  And another day.  Through the fog of safety-googles, I couldn’t see that any varnish was coming off the top piece, but these photos prove otherwise.

From certain angles, it doesn’t seem too bad after all.  Sort of like my mental state.

Soporific Aides: Footnoting

Today I have not been watching mindless Bravo TV featuring Jewel’s hosting skillz, using only my capacity to close down my intellect and a probably-illegal internet site.

Instead, I have spent all of today and most of yesterday going back over the literature review I recently thought I’d completed.  Oh, I knew it would probably rear up and strike again at some point and I have been steeling myself against what surely must be the sharpest and most piercing pain a person involved in academic work must endure.

Comprehensive footnoting.

You know the kind I mean: the statement that screams not only clearly this wasn’t my idea but must be expressed in tedious academic longhand involving directions to find precisely what someone else said first and where they said it.  Author, year, journal, volume, page reference, and then precise page reference involving the assertion made.  The Chief Brain has superimposed her own requirement that I provide her with “verbatim quotes” so she can quickly check I can actually prove my assertions.  So I am copy-typing chunks of text once I find something that backs me up.

I’d included vague references (author and year) in the first draft, knowing it wouldn’t be enough but needing to complete the draft in time to jump out of the way of the deadline juggernaut.  Now I need to find the exact page number and quotation which gave rise to the hand-scribbled barely-legible note I took of something I thought I might need later.

Weeks later.  After I’ve read all sorts of other interesting things, worked a bunch of days at a boring paid job, had a fountain of conversations involving in depth analysis of running a fair procedure in particularly difficult circumstances, and dispensed emergency advice all over the place.

I might once, five weeks ago, have been able to find the precise quotation by quickly sifting through a stack of paper a foot high.  Now it is like wading through chest-high treacle while wearing boots made of cast iron.

I feel like I’m back at university panicking before an essay deadline, only in a different order of magnitude.  The academic papers I need to refer to are long and dense, and there are about 30 of them.  The literature review is 5,500 words at the moment and I could perhaps be accused of over-referencing but still, there are many to find.  I am referencing now, knowing that I will still need to re-draft the whole thing to look at the issue from a slightly different angle.  More references will probably be needed, a prospect that brings on a thumping headache.

In search of an easier way, I have decided that in future I will

1) make little page number records in the margins of my own notes every so often and especially where I think I might need to use something later.

2) attempt to embrace the power of electronics to aid this tedious debacle of a task – I am doing things with printed paper and handwritten notes.  There has to be an electronic way of doing this, and I just don’t know what it is yet.  I need to find out.

Because otherwise it is enough to drive a person crazy.  If I do a PhD I will need to read a paper a day, and may (when writing up) need to find a quotation I read three years previously.

Remember when library records came on little cards, and quantitative and qualitative social science coding involved cutting up paper and gluing them to code-cards?  Me either.  But at the moment me and my pile of paper feel perilously close to the dark ages, and modern technology needs to attend.

Define: Undignified

I’ve been sweating blood over a piece of research, and a couple of weeks ago finally arrived at the firm deadline where deep thoughts had to be thrown into some kind of arena.  The Chief Brain’s strategy for getting the team to actually finish, rather than academically procrastinate in ever-increasing circles, was to set up an event where luminaries would come to hear us talk about our research.

Which meant we had to have something to say.  Something which wouldn’t cause heads to nod slowly forward in slumber.  The dreaded PowerPoint would be required.

To my great surprise I managed to get through my share of the public-facing activity without turning puce.  And although there were multiple last-minute logistical panics, if you’d been in the audience you wouldn’t have noticed them.

As an added bonus, it was in the small European city of Strasbourg, which is home to one of the most delicate lumps of a building I’ve ever seen.

The morning after the day before, I woke up with a gleeful feeling.  I’d done it!  There’d been more than enough wine and canapes to satisfy even the hungriest bureaucrat, nobody was refused security clearance into the venue, and nobody became narcoleptic while I was talking to them.  I sashayed happily into the hotel bathroom for my morning ablutions cradling the feeling of a job well done.

I was paying only moderately committed attention to what I was doing as I climbed into the bath, which is why it came as something of a shock to find myself, nanoseconds later, having involuntarily adopted the curiously painful position of a fish out of water.

My left leg was in agony.  What could have happened?  Whatever it was, it was enough to almost (almost, for I am tough) make me cry.  Only two weeks ago I stubbed my little toe on a piece of misplaced garden stone hard enough for it to turn purple and double in size (it still hurts, a bit).  Surely, the court of life could not hand down two injuries in as many weeks?  I am spatially unaware, ridiculously uncoordinated, and I often walk into walls, but oh come on, I thought as my vision returned.

My best guess is that my right foot slipped sort of backwards and to the right in the hyper-clean bath just as I was transferring my weight across.  Whatever – as I completed a tendon-busting set of the splits, the tender inside of my left leg felt my gravitationally-assisted bulk weigh down on it as it scraped down the outer tiled corner of the tub on my way to the fish-flailing position.

Aye, it hurt.

This is after ten days of liberal application of arnica cream.  The skin has grown back, and the outer edge of the bruise is turning healing-green-and-yellow.  It’s a good thing I’m not a skirt-wearer.  I really must try to be more careful.


Precedent Library

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